BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Acclaimed experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs (named by the Whitney Museum as one of the one hundred greatest artists of the twentieth century) delivers his life’s work with the nearly-fifty-years-in-the-making masterpiece Star Spangled To Death. No wonder the movie’s running time is an elephantine six hours-plus. Think of it as Picasso’s La Guernica come to life, with laughs added.
Nearly fifty years in the making, Star Spangled To Death sums up everything that fascinates and distresses the filmmaker. Sifting through the cinematic junkyard of the last century to display a delirious melange of ham-fisted political propaganda, inflammatory racist cartoons, old-time nudie shorts and Jacobs’ own whimsical footage, the film reveals America as an elaborate hoax invented to dazzle us right into the meat grinder. Jacobs is like one of those guys whose home is filled with kitschy ephemera, making us his willing guests, ready to be mesmerized by this show-and-tell of his favorite weird and disturbing finds.
STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH (2004, directed by Ken Jacobs, 402 minutes, U.S.)
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And wowed we are, as Jacobs takes us on a tour of the nation’s twisted sub-conscious, populated by Al Jolson rolling his eyes in darkie heaven, smiling TV hosts enthusiastically surveying scientific animal torture, foot fungus cured by prayer and other inexplicable moments, now faded and smudged but all eerily prescient about the world we live in today. Jacobs doesn’t hit you with campy little kernels, he lets most of these clips roll on to reveal not just crassness of 20th American life but a coalition of warped ideologies that celebrate the inane and preach obedience.
“Star Spangled To Death! The Movie For People Who Like To Read!” says an early proclamation and Jacobs puts his stamp on the material with frequent asides, many of them only readable to home viewers that can freeze his frames to sample Jacob’s playful wit. His written comments also contain flashes of righteous anger at watching his country treat humanity so callously. His philosophy towards war and religion is summed up succinctly when he interrupts a battlefield sequence from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 film The Crusades with a title card reading “A Fight to the Death! Over Whose Imaginary Friend is Bigger and Better!”
Making this more than an ivory tower dissection, SSTD features Jacobs own material, mostly shot in crisp black and white between 1957 and 1959. In these sections Jacobs films two outcast pals, one being fellow avant garde legend Jack (Flaming Creatures) Smith and the other a frustrated tenement dwelling artist named Jerry Sims. The whimsical Smith mainly wanders the streets seeking to engage strangers dressed in outfits improvised out of the garbage while Sims, looking like Charlie Callas with rickets, kvetches endlessly about everything under the sun. Labeled “a true, though addled scholar,” Jacobs finds poignancy in Sims, unable to “sell himself” in a Capitalist system that finds him smelly, irritating and out-of-step with everything. His sequences are exquisitely shot amongst the squalor and Sims’ utter honesty gives him a nobility wholly missing from the film’s corporate shills and greasy politicians.
In the final hour Jacobs introduces the post-9-11 world into the mix with clips that show modern society spokesmen to be a bit more subtle in their salesmanship, if no less craven. Jacobs’ dour observations on our current dilemmas get the short shrift but it says something that even after six and a half hours, Star Spangled To Death left me yearning for more.